It shouldn’t really be that easy to stumble across hitherto unencountered Alistair MacLean movies. There have been fewer than 15 big screen adaptations of his work over the years; the failure of Bear Island all but killed any continued interest in an author who had been highly prolific during the ’60s and ‘70s. MacLean aficionados will opine that his novels tend to be unsympathetically re-envisioned, bearing (ahem) little resemblance to his original masterpieces, but it’s difficult to buy into any notion that works of art are being desecrated.
MacLean churned out standard format boy’s own adventure yarns, usually involving spies or WWII escapades, and the resulting movies are invariably undistinguished fodder for weekend TV matinees; hence their forgettableness (and conversely, their discoverability). Everyone is familiar with (less than) a handful of adaptations (The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra), but his heyday in the movies had passed by the early ‘70s. Unsurprisingly, Bear Island has few credentials plot-wise to make its case as an undiscovered gem. Nor has it assembled an amazing cast (an idiosyncratically chosen one, certainly). But it does have something very vital going for it. One might argue it represents merely a superficial factor if the script isn’t there. But, in an era of CGI breath and fake snow, the movie’s accomplishment is all the more arresting; authenticity of location.
Bear Island features no bears, which should be made clear from the outset. The setting is the Norwegian island of the same name, although director Don Sharp and his cast and crew shot in British Columbia. Indeed, the film’s one claim to fame (since no one saw it) was the adverse publicity surrounding its $9m (US) cost; up to that point Canada’s most expensive film. It’s difficult to see why the producers thought such an investment would pay off, other than through a failure to recognise the shifting sands of audience interests following the arrival of Lucas, Spielberg et al. Unlike other big budget bombs of the period, it’s easy to see why the picture cost as much as it did; logistically, a shoot in such conditions would not be cheap. And, in terms of vistas, the results are all up there on screen.
Particularly during the early stages, the atmosphere created by this vast, desolate, snowy expanse is palpable. Haunting and evocative, it put me increasingly in mind of another film that opted to genuinely facing the elements, also in British Columbia; John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’d be surprised if Carpenter had not seen Bear Island; he would surely have been aware of it. Once that connection has been made, it’s easy to draw further parallels between the two; all Bear Island really needed was a beserk alien creature to engage the viewer, although a beserk creature in pursuit of Nazi gold might have been a difficult motivation to justify. Nevertheless, both pictures feature a group of difficult to individualise scientists inhabiting a remote outpost in sub-zero conditions; some of whom are not who they claim to be, their numbers are gradually whittled down, they are cut off from rescue, they are increasingly subject to sabotage and the intrusion of the elements. Certainly, during the mid-section, when a team member goes out to check on the generator (which then explodes), I could have momentarily forgotten which film I was watching.
Unfortunately, there is little else too make this compelling. Sharp, who worked in a variety of British TV (The Avengers) and film (the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu series, the not-bad-at-all Robert Powell The 39 Steps the year before this) stages the action competently, and cinematographer Alan Hume mostly ensures the joins between the exteriors and the Pinewood sets are not too obvious. But the premise and scenario are murky from the off. Introductions inform us this is a collection of UN-sanctioned scientists sent to study climate change in the area (changed from the novel, which featured a movie making crew). It sounds quite topical, but we never see them studying anything. I’m not even clear why the members of the party intent on plundering the gold required such a cover. Wouldn’t they have free rein to do pretty what they wanted on this barren wasteland (the nearby UN base seems oblivious to what’s going on)?
As soon as they arrive, Donald Sutherland’s beardy American Lansing (Sutherland’s Canadian status may explain his unlikely action lead duties; he reportedly took the part because he’d taken up sailing as a pastime) wants to check out the derelict U-boat base; his daddy was a U-boat commander, you see. Lansing effortlessly figures out what is going on, so the only intrigue left available is who is doing what and why. Sharp and his co-writers are so clumsy tossing frozen red herrings about it is quickly evident that anyone who comes under suspicion can’t be the true culprit (no double double-bluffs here). But there’s a greater problem in not really caring who is doing what and why. There are several parties after the precious metal, but there seem to be a greater number of faceless bystanders who never get a look in.
Reinforcing the pulpiness of the material, several of the cast have that “I’ll appear in anything as long as it’s crap” credentials. Richard Widmark is a Norwegian (he’d just come off The Swarm, so was clearly on a roll). Lloyd Bridges, is not yet consciously going for self-parody, but that’s the only difference between what he does here and the following year’s Airplane! Sharp regular Christopher Lee is a Pole, but he’s sadly under-used. Then there’s Vanessa Redgrave, also sporting a interesting accent, as the kind-of love interest. It’s rather refreshing to find Redgrave and Sutherland in such traditionally macho fare, but unfortunately their presence signifies little. Sutherland perhaps isn’t at his best, as he requires more than a one-note hero to bring out his eccentricities. Still, at least he gets stuck into an unlikely bout of fisticuffs. He would return to an unwelcoming island in Eye of the Needle, another Nazi-related picture, two years later. A very young Bruce Greenwood plays a technician, in his movie debut.
The plot wasn’t going to stand up to scrutiny under the best of circumstances, but the lack of distractions highlights a number of gaping holes; no one would seriously go along with Widmark dismissing calls for outside help, not when team members are dropping like flies. And wither the strange decision by Sutherland and Redgrave to make off on piddly little snow scooters, leaving the bad guys to take advantage of the much more impressive hydro-copters?
Occasional moments suggest something much more interesting could be done with this setting; there’s a highly impressive U-boat pen set that is barely used. The sight of a handcuffed skeleton in a German uniform suggests the discovery of long buried secrets; it’s rather typical of MacLean that said secrets turn out to be boring old ingots. If the makers had veered off into something offbeat and uncanny, Bear Island might at least retain cult appeal. But its plotting is too unexceptional to lend it status beyond that of a handsomely mounted, ploddingly predictable adventure yarn.